Zombies, Pigs, Zombie Pigs, Capitalism, and You
Brad Bolman on the Difference Between Recycling Waste
and Exploiting It
I’ve heard it said that every phase of American capitalism finds its reflection in zombies: if the stumbling undead in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead evinced the mindless consumerism of the Cold War years, the infected army chasing Brad Pitt in World War Z reveals fear of a contagious, out-of-control globalization, one that Henry A. Giroux has fittingly called “zombie capitalism.”
Yet zombies appeared to exit the realm of fiction when word broke in April 2019 that scientists had reanimated pig brains in a small New Haven laboratory. What sort of capitalism births such strange creatures as these?
No single experiment could be a cipher for an entire economic system, but Yale’s “reanimated hogs” were nevertheless symptomatic of broad transformations in the relationship between markets and nonhuman life. After the findings appeared in Nature, the news rocketed across scientific and popular publications, giving new energy to abiding and weighty questions about what separates the living from the dead—and what, exactly, it means to die.
If Sus scrofa domesticus brains could return to cellular activity four hours post-mortem, bioethicists wondered, is it time to revise our understanding of mortality?
The pig brains had hardly vanished from our terminally short news cycles before word came last May of a massive African swine fever epidemic in China that threatened the pork supply of the world’s largest producer. Li Xirong, director of the China Animal Agriculture Association, labeled it a “national crisis” that has since doubled the price of pork in China and could continue to impact costs for decades to come.
Estimates suggest that half of China’s 440 million pigs were lost last year—nearly a quarter of the world’s total pork supply—and the number could reach at least 300 million. Imagining the sudden disappearance of every person in America, nearly 330 million people, puts the totals in stark perspective.
The African swine fever crisis is not the first time China’s dying pigs have appeared in the news: in 2013, 16,000 pig carcasses floated down the Huangpu River, threatening Shanghai’s drinking water. A fisherwoman joked bitterly that there were now more pigs than fish in the river. The incident symbolized a kind of return of the repressed for a dangerously large industrial pork system that produces 54 million metric tons of pork (out of 100 million worldwide). First as farce, then as tragedy.
When the origin of Covid-19 was traced to Wuhan’s wet markets (although to bats and perhaps pangolins, not pigs), arguments about the country’s out-of-control breeding and consumption of meat were trotted out once more. According to PETA, the coronavirus outbreak was clear proof of the necessity of eliminating animals as food.
Yet as many pointed out in response, the problem of eating animals (even wild ones, a decades- or centuries-old practice) may be less significant than the way exploding industrial production of pork has pushed farmers into closer contact with new biological niches and unknown viral complexes. One accidental effect of the latest viral crisis may be decreased meat consumption in the world’s prime meat hub.
The variously literal and metaphorical porcine zombies share a connection to a massive global industry that has simultaneously made pork one of the most widely consumed meats and pigs the default test subjects for many of biology’s most challenging questions: reanimated brains, replaced organs, and the cure for Alzheimer’s are just a few.
To understand how meat and science have become so intertwined, and why it matters, we need to turn back to a time when factories were still finding their footing and hogs were just entering the halls of experiment.
In high school science classrooms all across the United States, aspiring biologists and their peers learn about the human body by dissecting fetal pigs. Cutting delicately across their bodies, queasy students are trained to recognize the appearance of anatomical features that often mirror our own. Despite presumptive species differences, it turns out that human and pig bodies share a great deal of similarity.
Indeed, these dissectors are enrolled, often without conscious awareness, in a millennia-spanning endeavor that traces back to the earliest published anatomical textbooks, including Salerno’s Anatomia porci, from the 11th and 12th centuries, which taught anatomy through the dissection of hogs.
In an otherwise forgettable episode of the X-Files (S2E14, “Die Hand Die Verletzt”), a traumatized teenager finds her pig coming back to life during a make-up dissection lab. The shock value, to the extent that the clunky special effects still offer one, arises from one unspoken requirement of dissection: not only that the specimen is dead (of course), but that it must seem to have never lived. The fetal pig, arriving in shrink-wrapped plastic, is an inert object with no meaningful point of origin, more product than being.
This is little more than a marketing strategy. Despite historical precedents, modern fetal pig dissection is an early 20th-century phenomenon that coincided with a rapid expansion of American pork packing. Once, when the “kill cycle” of hogs was slower, sows were allowed to carry pregnancies to term.
But with the ever-increasing speed and intensity of pork rendering, which helped make metropolises out of Cincinnati and Chicago, waiting for births was simply an inefficiency. Because fetal pigs don’t make for much in the way of eating, unborn swine were typically tossed away or, at best, converted to fertilizer while their mothers became meat. Until the professors came along, that is.
When William J. Baumgartner published his Laboratory Manual of the Foetal Pig, one of the first texts dedicated to the subject, in 1924, he extolled the “unlimited number of specimens” available “at any good-sized packing plant.” In a review, Henry Higgins Lane, the former director of Kansas University’s History Museum, praised Baumgartner for bringing attention to “a form hitherto largely over-looked” in classroom dissection.
Overlooked, but greatly valuable: enterprising young Midwestern professors could take a quick trip to the local rendering plant and buy a classroom supply of fetal pigs without breaking the budget. The unceasingly efficient pork production system that used “everything about the hog except the squeal,” in the words of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, was the sine qua non for this discovery.
In the industry, fetal pigs are considered “by-products” of pork production, but that terminology obfuscates the truth that they are neither inevitable by-products nor chance accidents. Fetal pigs are not allowed a birth in the first place, because a system premised on maximizing meat cannot afford the delay. And while they initially seemed like little more than a useful piece of good fortune for educational institutions, the little swine could not escape further capitalization.
“Capital sees waste as the final frontier for commodification,” writes scholar Todd McGowan, and the nascent laboratory supply industry cornered the market as mass suppliers of high-quality classroom “specimens” by the mid-20th century.
That transformation was part of a broader reconfiguration of the relationship between science educators and their classroom materials. Late-19th-century dissection manuals are overflowing with grisly tales of cats chloroformed in homemade boxes. Once pigs became purchased products, professors increasingly ordered, rather than scavenged, their classroom specimens. More than inert nature, teaching specimens became commodities, with entrepreneurial academics often founding supply companies of their own. The “accident” of fetal pig dissection was a foundational moment in the increasingly intricate intersection of pig science with pork production.
While Big Pork pushed fetal pigs onto classroom tables, one specific pork product—Spam—was central to the next important development in porcine science: the experimental minipig. The connection should come as no surprise: where science and hogs meet, the question of edibility is never far off.
George A. Hormel, a former Chicago slaughterhouse employee, took out a small loan to open his own meat production company in Austin, Minnesota in 1891. There he introduced the first mass market canned ham product, Hormel Flavor-Sealed Ham, and then the better-known Spam, which debuted in 1937 and helped feed American soldiers overseas.
In 1942, George’s son Jay used the family fortune to convert old horse stables into a high-tech (for the time) space of experimentation in agricultural science and medicine. Jay’s newly formed Hormel Institute joined forces with the nearby Mayo Clinic and the National Heart Institute in 1949 to develop a “miniature swine” that could serve in biomedical research.
Although they were not meant for eating, miniature swine represented an effective reversal of the typical strategy of agricultural breeders like Hormel. Many involved in the miniature pig project had previously worked to breed the “Minnesota No. 1” and “No. 2” pigs, meat-heavy hogs that promised increased returns on farm investments. The No. 1 and No. 2 were early exemplars of the application of genetic techniques to industrial agriculture, and the lessons they offered were crucial to breeding a consistently small hog that was still “normal” enough to produce uniform scientific results.Initially a spinoff of industrial production, like fetal pigs, miniature swine generated new synergies between agriculture and basic science.
Though widespread now, the idea of breeding pigs for something other than dinner was so novel that a Newsweek article on the miniature swine in 1953 had to clarify that they were not meant to provide Americans “with Tom Thumb pork chops,” but rather “to help medical researchers battle against cancer, diabetes, virus diseases, and other human maladies.”
Though many researchers preferred dogs and rodents for experimental studies, miniature pigs gradually gained popularity. They served as nuclear test detectors, since pigs’ skin reacted similarly to that of humans. They were given new hearts to study the feasibility of different allotransplant techniques before human-to-human transplantation became commonplace.
They were even fed extreme diets to study obesity and atherosclerosis under the theory that domestication made them “a counterpart, even a caricature, of the overfed, physically lethargic human population.” In a 1966 article in Scientific American, longtime hog evangelist Leo K. Bustad proclaimed that pigs were “In almost every way … a closer analogy to man than those laboratory favorites, the rat and the dog.”
Yet comparable claims of similarity could be made—and were—for dogs, sheep, goats, horses, and a great many other species besides. Using pigs was partly a matter of personal or laboratory style; not so coincidentally, many institutions that adopted this style were located in or near major agricultural centers.
And while “experimental” pigs were promised different futures than their table-bound kin, both would fall prey to the same developments in veterinary and agricultural knowledge. Initially a spinoff of industrial production, like fetal pigs, miniature swine generated new synergies between agriculture and basic science: laboratory studies produced improvements in pork production and vice versa.
Despite the hype from Bustad and others, many researchers were content with rodents or dogs, and hesitant to switch over to the pig. The typical farm hog is around 215 pounds; at 170 pounds, the first minipigs were more manageable but still challenging to feed and control. Even today, despite decades of careful miniaturization (trademarked Ellegaard Göttingen “minipigs” weigh around 60 pounds), scientific minipigs remain boutique research subjects.
What was lacking, then and now, were economies of scale that could match the seemingly infinite production of laboratory mice and rats (17-22 million are used annually in the US alone, according to estimates). But supporters of experimental pigs, whether minipigs for toxicology studies or larger farm hogs for dietary studies, have continued to defend a future for pigs in the lab.
Excerpted from Issue One of The Drift, in an essay originally titled “Capitalist Pigs.” Reproduced by permission. Copyright © 2020 by Brad Bolman.